Dwelling in the Golden Years: Experiments in Senior Living

‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an aging Society

via Dwelling in the Golden Years: Experiments in Senior Living | Features | Archinect

Its going to happen to all of us – “Done got Old – can’t do the things I use to!” – Junior Kimbaugh – even those of us in deep denial who intend to work till we die ( most designers and architects I know do not intend to retire). Yet the existing models for later life living are pretty poor and none of the regularly offered ones are very satisfactory. This in-depth review of the options is worthwhile reading for anyone involved in design or management of the aged or making place for aging in  our society.

Illustration Evgenia Barinova

Illustration Evgenia Barinova

Global populations are aging—according to the UN, by 2030 the number of citizens aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56%, a figure which by 2050 is expected to double again, to a total of 2.1 billion seniors worldwide, skewed towards ‘greying economies’ such as those of the US and Europe. Where and how will our seniors live in the future? This month I speak to architect and KADK professor Deane Simpson, who researches shifts in the built environment which are occurring as a consequence of population aging, and Stephen Bates of award-winning firm Sergison Bates who recently completed the Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, London. Is it possible to move beyond stereotypes to create an architecture which is functional, healthy and beneficial for the older generation?

It was a visit to St Petersburg, Florida, during the mid-1990s which first sparked Simpson’s interest in the peculiarities of elderly lifestyle communities. With a group of friends, he had stumbled into a housing district exclusively for the over 65’s which challenged their preconceptions of the modern mixed-demographic city. In a bar brimming with vivacious seniors, they felt like complete outsiders. It was an experience which inspired him to lead an architecture study group from ETH-Zurich back to Florida to research deeper into what he saw as a distinct shift in senior living which later informed his award-winning book ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society’.

“A common understanding of seniors would be people with physical or mental difficulties who required care”, explains Simpson, “but my sense was that that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care towards entertainment and leisure, and how these communities were self-segregating on an urban scale”.

Old age is now widely understood to have subdivided into two separate phases of life—the ‘Young-Old’ can now expect to enjoy 20-30 years of good health prior to becoming ‘Old-Old’, when they require special care and support. Historian Peter Laslett, in his 1996 book ‘A Fresh Map of Life’, suggests this phenomenon first emerged as a consequence of the older generation becoming liberated by improvements in healthcare and lifestyle and possessing significant comparative wealth compared to other demographic groups. In the decades following 1950, there was a limited precedent for the ‘Young-Old’ in terms of societal expectations and conventions of how and where to live.

The US is recognized to have pioneered early trends in retirement living as it was not tied to the need to rebuild after the Second World War, a task which preoccupied both Europe and Japan. The world’s first documented age-segregated retirement community, Sun City Arizona, built in 1954 and now home to 37,000 seniors, was the first to explore accommodation options for the emerging ‘Young-Old’ demographic. Sun City promised year-long sunshine, leisure-based social activities, companionship and fun—a far cry from the dreaded nursing home.

My sense was that housing and urbanism for the ‘Young-Old’ was not really being discussed. I became interested in how emphasis had shifted from care and rest to entertainment and leisure, and how these senior communities were self-segregating on an urban scale” Deane Simpson

Emergence of the ‘Young-Old’. Image: ‘After Peter Laslett, A Fresh Map of Life, 1989.’ From Young-Old.

Owner-occupied retirement housing now represents 17% of the total housing stock in the US, a figure which is steadily increasing year after year. According to the Financial Times, the wealth of the ‘baby boomer’ generation has enabled age-specialist developers to bid for the first time against mainstream development firms to supply prime real-estate. In New Zealand, 12% of over 75s now live in retirement communities, a figure which has risen from 9% in 2014. Meanwhile, housing typology options for seniors have continued to diversify to a certain extent, with an emphasis on familiar styles and forms arranged into neighborhood groupings. I was interested to explore the main trends and innovations in senior housing, so I went in search of architects who are addressing the needs and desires of the older generation with a variety of contrasting approaches.

Senior living dream 1: The Retirement Village

Taking after the Sun City model, the retirement village is characterized by separate dwellings designed specifically for the over 55’s, separated from the rest of the city. Organizations such as the UK-based International Longevity Center warn that the global upsurge in the construction of privatized retirement villages might spell the end for the traditional care home and a state-driven model of elderly care. While most villages take a detached, suburban picket-fence type outlook to housing as seen in Sun City, others adopt a more experimental approach.

One of the most extraordinary propositions I came across was that of Guedes Cruz Architects’ Alcabideche Social Complex near Lisbon, Portugal. The community of 52 cube-like dwellings, constructed from concrete and plexiglass, shade elderly residents from scorching summer sun. Unlike almost all other retirement communities I researched, this project embraces some of the harder to stomach realities of aging—when a resident sounds an alarm within the house, the entire roof of the building lights up red, a glowing distress signal which is broadcasted to the entire community. The 10,000m2 neighborhood also houses a support building and an undulating landscape of public terraces and pools which connect the dwellings.

Guedes Cruz Architects’ Alcabideche Social Complex in Lisbon, Portugal. © Ricardo Oliveira Alves.

Senior living dream 2: The High-End Apartment

This interview with a New York resident underlines the older generation are just as diverse as any other age group, not all of whom are searching for the quiet life. “Living in the city is so much better than in the country or burbs”, the 82-year old told the reporter. Some developers are responding to the need of housing seniors within the city by peppering apartment complexes within the existing urban fabric, as a preference to creating detached retirement communities. I spoke to architect Stephen Bates of renowned London-based practice Sergison Bates regarding their Housing for Older Residents project in Hampstead, north London, completed earlier this year. The residential scheme consists of 29 individual apartments with shared facilities, such as social spaces, spa and a communal garden. The community is to be supported by an in-house caretaker whose role is to facilitate both daily activities and care for resident’s needs.

Ground floor plan of Housing for Elderly Residents, Hampstead, showing social spaces. Image © Sergison Bates.

Bates explained that a key driver behind the design was to find an architectural typology appropriate for elderly residents with respect to the context and conservation area of the surrounding site. “We were inspired by the mansion blocks which characterize the area and used this existing urban form to mediate with the townscape of large Arts and Crafts stand alone or semi-detached villas in Hampstead”, he told me. The innovative ‘honeycomb’ plan which first drew me to the project was in part defined by the site footprint and a diagonal emphasis to allow long views across the site towards the gardens. The plan is organized into a number of ‘bedroom suites’ which group changing, bathrooms and sleeping areas together to form definable territories which allow privacy and flexibility of occupation, linked by a ‘middle room’ at the heart of each apartment. “Multi-sided rooms make it possible to have different orientations within the apartment”, describes Bates, “and allowed us to form a collection of ‘good’ rooms rather than aligning purely functional spaces one next to the other.” While offering visual interest to residents spending significant time indoors, a further aim of the design was to enable a live-in carer, visiting family members or a spouse to enjoy different degrees of privacy.

“Many of the residents would have come from a large house, possibly within the area of Hampstead itself”, Bates explains, “and the transition to horizontal living would have to be facilitated by the careful organization of internal spaces. We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.”

We designed a plan that incorporates a series of areas that allow differentiated access, with interlocking rooms and long diagonal views across them. This creates a landscape of spaces one can move through in more than one way, so that the needs of individual residents can best be met.” Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates Architects.

Portuguese practice Aires Mateus Arquitectos have taken the senior high-rise typology into a rural context for their ‘Residências assistidas em Alcácer do Sal’ (Houses for elderly people in Alcácer do Sal) project, also in Portugal. Speaking to Dezeen, they describe the scheme as a “micro-society”, “between a hotel and a hospital”. They suggest an aim of the project was to address the limited mobility of the building’s residents by forming a patchwork of gently sloping walkways which meander across the site. While the architectural intervention is striking and sculptural due to the way it slices into the topography, it is unclear what access the elderly residents have to medical facilities or social spaces to promote their health and well-being in the long term.

Residências assistidas em Alcácer do Sal. Image © Aires Mateus Arquitectos.

Senior living dream 3: Aging in Place

While not a new concept, aging in place has garnered significant public attention and commendation in recent years. While critics suggest ‘lifelong homes’ is a convenient policy to promote while cutting public spending budgets, there is also significant grassroots support. Furniture fixes and small interventions are the most cost-effective way of adapting a home as the occupants’ physical abilities deteriorate. In this report, the American Architectural Foundation suggest that enabling people to remain in their previous homes or original communities is the most favorable outcome according to their survey preferences. In the 2007 study ‘aging in Place in America’ commissioned by the Clarity and the EAR Foundation, elderly people fear moving away, losing their independence and exile from their communities, more than they fear death. While this may highlight certain misunderstandings of what alternative options there are available, the severity of this statement is nonetheless significant.

The de-institutionalized approach to senior living may have significant benefits when the built environment is tuned to support and assist elderly residents. Aging in place has been proven to support independence and retain community ties which are difficult to sustain when people are uprooted after they reach a certain age. “At the same time,” suggests Simpson, “[Aging in place] is not a perfect solution as it still poses challenges—on both the housing and neighborhood scale. Immobile seniors who have aged in place in low-density car-based housing areas can be vulnerable to social isolation, and can be beyond walking distance to local amenities or a supermarket. Environments like these can also be more costly to service with healthcare provision.”

[Aging in place] is not a perfect solution as it still poses challenges—on both the housing and neighborhood scale. Immobile seniors who have aged in place in low-density car-based housing areas can be vulnerable to social isolation, and can be beyond walking distance to local amenities or a supermarket.” Deane Simpson

Social Housing in Barking by Patel Taylor. Image © Peter Cook.

The challenge of creating communities that allow people to age in place may also offer an opportunity to rethink suburban or low-density neighborhoods which have long been a challenge to both architects and urban planners. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) support the ‘lifelong homes’ concept—a dwelling that adapts to people’s needs and desires as they grow older. The London Mayor’s design advisory group have offered guidance to both architects and urbanists on how to create ‘Lifetime Neighborhoods’ in this recent report.

Patel Taylor’s Courtyard Housing in Barking, London, aims to address some of the challenges of maintaining an affordable, mixed-generation neighborhood. The economic model of their housing development in Barking is based on that of traditional English almshouse, in which accommodation is provided by a charitable body for citizens who are unable to support themselves. The social housing project was designed to support independent living as residents grow older, but can be occupied by people and families of any age. “The scheme aims to provide council tenants with quality of life and pride in their homes”, say Patel Taylor.

Interestingly, some retirement communities may spontaneously arise from a natural process of aging in place, which is one of Simpson’s ongoing research interests at KADK. Brooklyn-based design studio Interboro Partners have analyzed a number of housing projects in New York City which have emerged due to families moving in during at a specific time then remaining in the same housing block. “I believe that the naturally occurring retirement community is an interesting case to discuss when we focus on dense urban environments”, suggests Simpson, “in the NYC examples, they make use of elevator access and nearby park-like space, at the same time they are tightly integrated into a vibrant and amenity-rich city.”

A main characteristic of a co-living approach is to form independent but connected living arrangement to ensure sufficient degrees of privacy, while benefiting from shared social spaces.”

Senior living dream 4: Co-living

Loneliness and the rising cost of care are some of the most challenging aspects faced by both ‘Young-Old’ and ‘Old-Old’ age groups. Based on a traditional Japanese concept first trialed in Tokyo, some architects are experimenting with combining seniors with other demographic groups with free time but minimal disposable income to create skill-sharing communities. Examples include this nursing home in the Netherlands which is also a student dorm and the Mount’s Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle.

A main characteristic of the co-living approach is to form an independent but connected living arrangement to ensure sufficient degrees of privacy, while benefiting from shared social spaces. When applied to senior living, this approach aims to challenge the stigma of the ‘granny annex’ to create a multigenerational family home where two or more generations can co-exist peacefully. Lennar’s Next Gen Home is innovating in this market—their new build homes combine two separate houses together to form a ‘home within a home’, each area accessible from a separate entrance. In their promotional material, the ‘Next Gen Suite’ has been tested both with aging relatives and adult children with severe disabilities. For more on co-living stay tuned for next month’s feature.

Lennar’s ‘Next Gen Home’ incorporates a separate apartment within the main footprint of the house. Image © Lennar.

Senior living dream 5: The Cruise Ship

While at first glance it might seem slightly farfetched, increasing numbers of cruise liner companies are now offering live-in possibilities following a wave of media speculation that constant cruising was a more cost-effective prospect than a room in a traditional care home. Back in 2015, USA Today covered the story of 86-year-old Lee Wachtstetter, who took her daughter’s advice to sell her home after the death of her husband to go and live on the Crystal Serenity cruise liner.

The Florida-based shipping company Residences at Sea were one of the first to provide an exclusive long-term rental offering and other enterprises such as Crystal are now following suit with customisable apartments, some as large as 4000 square feet. Cruise Retirement now allows retirees to buy their own cabins. This reflects a boom in the cruise industry overall—according to the The Cruise Lines International Association, over 25 million passengers are predicted to set sail in 2017, with over half of them in the 50-74 age range. However, it is unclear what data the cost predictions that cruise living is cheaper than other accommodation preferences is based on, as circumstances and prices vary dramatically for seniors across the globe. Difficulty in securing affordable insurance, few complimentary onboard meals and lack of access to specialist care onboard may well outweigh the senior discount. In addition, the logistics of living constantly on a cruise ship may be impractical at best—where would possessions be stored? What would the arrangements be while the ship is in port? How might this lifestyle be sustained year after year?

Cruise lines are also selling their elderly living packages as lifestyle products, bearing certain similarities to the first retirement villages. This phenomenon is what Simpson refers to as ‘youthfulness without youth’—environments which, while alluring, are unfortunately seldom designed to support their residents during the complex process of physical and mental decline. “It is only recently that some of these retirement villages have given in to pressure to provide assisted care facilities”, he explains, “it’s not part of their branding as lifestyle products. They do not have cemeteries, sometimes they remove the deceased during the night, reflecting taboos about death and illness amongst this age group.”

It is only recently that some of these retirement villages have given in to pressure to provide assisted care facilities, it’s not part of their branding as lifestyle products. They do not have cemeteries, sometimes they remove the deceased during the night, reflecting taboos about death and illness amongst this age group.” Deane Simpson

Sun City Arizona retirement community. Image © Deane Simpson from Young-Old.

Since the 2008 financial crash, the perception of the ‘Young-Old’ as a pleasure-seeking group that is benefiting from the welfare economy while leaving other groups disadvantaged has generated a great deal of anger. Yet, societal expectations of this age group are changing fast. While 30-40 years ago, the ‘Young-Old’ might expect to retire to warmer climes to enjoy an expanse of leisure time—whether moving from the Midwest to Florida, or from the UK to Spain, up to 60% of Americans over 60 now say they will look for a new job after retiring according to Careerbuilder.com, a US jobs website. Many people in this age group are also taking on additional childcare responsibilities, as their children often have a two working parent household which is now required to support a modest income.

However, the push factors forcing people out of their homes today remain broadly similar to what they were back in the 1960s—including an inability to maintain a household, inadequate neighborhood leisure amenities, proximity to healthcare and other amenities, high living costs, adverse climate aggravating health conditions such as arthritis, fear of crime, or the death of a spouse. Yet new experiments in senior living promise companionship, lower housing expenses, provision for poor health, and closeness to family. Housing for the ‘Young-Old’ remains a site of experimentation and innovation, which will have an increasingly significant impact on the market overall. “In the past decade or so”, suggests Deane, “the great majority [of citizens who fall into the ‘Young-Old’ age category] have opted to age in place. This does not mean the desire for a fresh start and to move away is necessarily disappearing. Outcomes of different surveys also emphasize what can be problematic about the current living conditions for those who are aging in place.”

Outcomes of different surveys also emphasize what can be problematic about the current living conditions for those who are aging in place.” Deane Simpson

Costa Del Sol, the Retirement Capital of Europe. Image © Deane Simpson

What makes an age-friendly city? How can architects and urban planners ensure communities possess a rich social life and cross-generational activities? How can segregation and social isolation be reduced? Throughout 2014 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) compiled a volume of knowledge from both industry and breakthrough research into an Alternative Age Friendly Handbook, which offers some helpful insights. In the US, the American Architectural Foundation cites a lack of diversity, lack of access to continuous and accessible walking routes, few intentional social spaces and restricted access to both healthcare and crisis assistance as key areas for improvement. While these features are aimed at older adults, it is necessary to recognize improvements in these areas are also of great benefit to everyone in the community.

Bates recommends that architects engaged with accommodation for the elderly acknowledge the specific needs and requirements of aging residents, some of which are often overlooked. “There are many models that still need to be explored, in particular, the development more mixed-age collective housing solutions rather than residential forms that cater to a homogeneous age group,” he suggests, “architects need to go back to experimenting with housing in the way they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More experimental housing typologies should also be tested to respond to other demographic trends, such as the growing number of single households in western cities. The proliferation of micro[flats is definitely not the only, nor the most appropriate answer.”

Both Bates and Simpson are in agreement that complex, vibrant, diverse and amenity-rich neighborhoods should drive the development of housing in this sector. “That means thinking beyond the conventional real estate modernist plan”, suggests Bates, “to look at pre-modernist models, as there is much to learn from them, and being more imaginative and flexible about how daily lives can unfold within domestic settings. Housing is the most codified sector in construction and too often homes end up being the unimaginative result of compliance with existing standards and regulations”, Bates continues, “I think we should be much more ambitious and much more open to looking beyond modernist orthodoxy.”

Architects need to go back to experimenting with housing in the way they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More experimental housing typologies should also be tested to respond to other demographic trends, such as the growing number of single households in western cities” Stephen Bates, Sergison Bates Architects.

Huis Ten Bosch, Japan. Image © Deane Simpson from Young-Old.

According to the American Architectural Foundation, senior housing has positioned itself at cutting edge of innovation in the housing sector due to a willingness to try the new with a hope that it will improve on what we remember of the old. “The ritual of aging is that of continual reinvention, not of tradition, and the senior housing industry is deeply vested in understanding and responding to evolving market desire,” they state. The emergence of AI in household care and the opportunities of digital mobility also present interesting opportunities for tailored elderly care suited to individual needs, therefore unlocking previously unimagined living arrangements. Might a domesticated model of care be delivered without a semi-hospitalized environment? How could healthy routines be designed into the building fabric of new developments using new technologies?

“The architect’s role in this would be to produce a diversity of possible models. This diversity should develop through an openness and willingness to experiment and promote the exploration of alternative models to the limited bandwidth of options in the current market environment,” suggests Simpson. “When one is designing for a certain age group, an essential aspect is to address the fact that the user, him or herself, will age in that given environment. This is sometimes overlooked. When designing for the ‘Young-Old’, one has to bear in mind that in 20 years they are likely to be amongst the ‘Old-Old’. So it becomes relevant to factor in how one develops the capacity for these environments to support the people dwelling in them, in different stages of life which in turn correspond to different needs. In responding to this challenge, it becomes relevant to overcome the stigmatization of elderly-friendly design aspects”, he continues, “ as well embracing a diversity of users and preferences. We should keep in mind that seniors are as diverse a population as the rest of us.”

The ritual of aging is that of continual reinvention, not of tradition, and the senior housing industry is deeply vested in understanding and responding to evolving market desire.” American Architectural Foundation

In the US, the Living in Place Insitute provide additional assistance on the options for renovating an existing home to the needs of aging.

To read more about the urban and architectural experiments which come out of these different urban environments, different typologies of retirement see Deane Simpson’s ‘Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an aging Society, published by Lars Muller.

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